In Nik Cohn’s history of pop and rock Awopbopaloobop Alopbamboom, his chapter on The Beatles opens “Next come the Fab Four, the Moptop Mersey Marvels, and this is the bit I’ve been dreading. I mean what is there possibly left to say about them?” And in Americana, these days, it’s easy to feel the same way when writing about Jason Isbell.
After all Isbell is the man who’s been described by well-respected music websites as the King of Americana, the Americana superstar, “the voice of a generation” or even – whatever this actually means – “the current involuntary torchbearer of Americana” and whose latest album, ‘Reunions’, has spawned dozens, if not hundreds, of lengthy, earnestly written, mostly highly positive reviews. Typing in Isbell+interviews on Google garners a mere 400,000+ results, and that hugely successful relationship with the media turns out to be a two-way street: recently Isbell wrote a tribute to the late John Prine (on whose last record Isbell played) in The New York Times.
So there seems to be little point in adding to the swathes of material already out there discussing the trio of Isbell’s albums in the last decade (‘The Nashville Sound’, ‘Something More Than Free’ and above all ‘Southeastern’) that, at least according to Rolling Stone “told a moving story about Isbell’s emergence as a husband, father, and voice of moral consciousness in the modern South”. Those three albums also were instrumental in propelling him to that fabled pinnacle of Americana – although, as tends to happen with most beings endowed with a divine nature and given how diffuse a term Americana is, too, you can’t help wondering how come so many people are so sure Isbell is actually ‘up there’.
Anyway, with that degree of fame and prestige, it’s not surprising that his six or so years with southern rockers Drive-By-Truckers in the early noughties – preceded by a lengthy spell in the Muscle Shoals studios as a songwriter and cutting his teeth as a teenage musician before that – have been almost equally as well documented as those albums. His success at beating alcoholism is another strand of Isbell’s backstory that gets plenty of coverage, and there’s a fair amount too, on, his not wholly popular refusal to separate his left-leaning (left-leaning for the USA, we hasten to add), cogently expressed, political views from his music.
(If the political stuff sounds a shade dull, rest assured Isbell can be refreshingly tongue-in-cheek as well when it comes to big social questions: a Tweet on home invasions of feral hogs in the southern USA, for example, while sparked by the very serious subject of gun control, has spiralled into some mindbendingly surreal humour in at least one interview, not to mention producing a Twitter meme of said porker. Failing that, if you want a good example of the strength of Isbell’s dark, off-beat humour, just listen to ‘Super8 Motel’.)
But he doesn’t just talk the talk: right from when he learned to play different instruments including the trumpet and drums, first thanks to jamming with his Pentecostal preacher grandfather (“He played the fiddle so he wanted me to learn the guitar so I could accompany him and then it went on from there” is how Isbell once put it) when he was a child growing up in Northern Alabama, then spent hours sitting in with musicians in restaurant groups and music studios in Muscle Shoals, there’s plenty of evidence that Isbell has always lived for what he does. His Wikipedia page lists no less than 23 different guitars he’s used over the years, and in interviews he’s constantly citing new influences or interests, ranging – and this is only fairly recently – from Squeeze and The Cure to modern-day Australian psychedelic rock band King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard.
But for those who’ve been living under a rock for the last decade, it’s probably worth explaining a little what exactly is the fuss all about- to the point where Isbell can sell out an unprecedented six nights at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville in 2017 or that 100,000 unique viewers tuned in to see his livestream release of ‘Reunions’ Rather than taking the umpteenth wade through his current total of eleven solo albums (including four live ones) since 2007, though, it could be more effective to have a quick dig into the song described by his former Drive-By Truckers bandmate Patterson Hood as the best of 2013: ‘Elephant’, off his ‘Southeastern’ album, itself often viewed as the touchstone of Isbell’s career to date.
Loosely inspired by Isbell’s time spent, pre-sobriety, at a bar and his realising that a high proportion of the other regulars had disappeared because they had died of cancer, ‘Elephant’ kicks off with the narrator’s recollections of a flirty conversation with a – it emerges – terminally ill female friend. But it ends with the bleakest of conclusions:
“One thing that’s real clear to me,
no-one dies with dignity,
we just try to ignore the elephant somehow.”
But in fact, the elephant/cancer overshadows everything else in Isbell’s song, from the harshest of reminders like the narrator sweeping up his friend’s hair off the floor to their shared spells of fleeting lightheartedness: telling cancer jokes, making up fake doctor’s notes and “Seagrams in a coffee cup”. One structural master-stroke, as a song, is its lack of an instrumental solo – meaning there’s no musical escape, either, from the reflections on the illness and its consequences as they steadily pile up.
But maybe what, ultimately, makes ‘Elephant’ so powerful is the way the song jolts relentlessly back and forth between those brief upbeat images and the constant pointers towards the grim end to it all: “surrounded by her family”, the narrator notes with devastating succinctness, “I saw she was dying alone.”
To judge by his success, Isbell’s gift for presenting unvarnished, wry, empathetic life portraits in a way that’s deeply universal and anything but saccharine clearly has filled a big gap for many listeners. But what maybe helps keep Isbell centre-stage for the more mainstream audience, too, is he’s not massively adventurous musically – although ‘Reunions’ seems to mark a point of departure in that field.
Rather he’s mostly developed and polished some fairly standard formats of country, rock and Americana roots music to a very high degree, counting on strong support by the backing band, The 400 Units and, in particular, his wife Amanda Shires’ violin playing. So if Isbell’s lyrics take you in utterly unexpected, unconventional directions – even now, you could count songs out there as direct about cancer like that on the fingers of one hand, for example – they’re generally based on bedrocks of songs which are instantly accessible and catchy: a combination way easier said than done.
Amid all the plaudits, the multiple Grammy awards and numerous other prizes, one thing that rarely gets commented on, though, is Isbell’s unusual (for Americana) and very striking singing style. Rather than the typical gruff, world-weary old-timer, kind of intonation so many artists of the genre have, Isbell’s singing has a really youthful, impassioned edge to it – even now, at 41. That in turn, drives Isbell’s songs with a very different kind of dynamic, one that maybe helps him stand out and for his messages to strike home even harder. (Just listening to the first four lines of another of his greatest songs, ‘Cover Me Up’, and the way he ‘throws’ his voice there tells it better than any review could do.)
And the global result? Well, to go back to the Beatles and Danny Boyle’s recent, woefully inane underachievement of a film notwithstanding, it’s always been well-nigh impossible to imagine the history of pop music without the Moptop Mersey Marvels. Isbell maybe hasn’t gained that kind of status yet in Americana. But he’s certainly getting closer, and fast.
With Drive-By Truckers
2003 – ‘Decoration Day’ (New West Records)
2004 – ‘Dirty South’ (New West Records)
2006 – ‘A Blessing And A Curse’ (New West Records)
Solo and/or with the 400 Unit:
2007 – ‘Sirens Of The Ditch’ (New West Records)
2008 – ‘Live At Twist & Shout 11.16.07’ (New West Records)
2009 – ‘Jason Isbell and the 400 Unit’ (Lightning Rod)
2011 – ‘Here We Rest’ (Lightning Rod)
2012 – ‘Live From Alabama’ (Lightning Rod)
2013 – ‘Southeastern’ (Southeastern)
2015 – ‘Something More Than Free’ (Southeastern)
2017 – ‘The Nashville Sound’ (Southeastern)
2017 – ‘Live From Welcome To 1979’ (Thirty Tigers)
2018 – ‘Live From the Ryman’ (Thirty Tigers)
2020 – ‘Reunions’ (Southeastern)